Jacob Heilbrunn

J Street's George Soros Problem

The Washington Times struck pay dirt last week when its indefatigable foreign affairs correspondent Eli Lake revealed that J Street, the liberal organization founded to counteract the influence of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (neoconservatives, led by William Kristol, have, in turn, established the Emergency Committee for Israel to counteract J Street--you can check it out here), has been receiving substantial donations from the financier George Soros. Until now, J Street had denied that this was the case. But Lake received tax records indicating that Soros and his two children have donated at least $245,000 to J Street. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, J Street is receiving a separate $500,000 gift over three years from Soros.

Lake notes,

In a section of the website called "myths and facts," the group includes a passage that reads: "George Soros very publicly stated his decision not to be engaged in J Street when it was launched--precisely out of fear that his involvement would be used against the organization."

After Mr. Ben Ami spoke with The Times, the website was abruptly amended Thursday night with an addition that stated: "J Street has said it doesn’t receive money from George Soros, but now news reports indicate that he has in fact contributed."

It's interesting that J Street felt constrained from mentioning the Soros connection. Presumably, it wants to present itself as a grassroots organization rather than one beholden to a billionaire who has funded numerous causes through his Open Society institute to promote civil society around the globe. Perhaps it felt that revealing the Soros connection would simply render it a kind of front organization rather than an independent one. Politico's Ben Smith says
that "the apparent cover-up is perhaps worse than the crime," but it hardly rose to the level of criminal behavior to take money from Soros. J Street will weather the storm.

Whatever the reason, J Street has damaged its reputation. It opened itself up unncessarily to attack by attempting to occlude the Soros connection. Now that it has been publicly exposed, J Street is going into damage control mode. It's a pity that at the very moment that Israel is embarking upon a new and self-destructive round of settlement construction that J Street itself is suffering a self-inflicted wound. According to Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress,

That the indignation over George Soros is overblown is demonstrated by the fact that some of those attacking J Street have had no problem making use of his money. For example, former Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb, one of J Street's most obsessive critics, is now a vice-president at the lobbying firm Orion Strategies. As Salon's Justin Elliott discovered last week, Orion Strategies has received funds from Soros' Open Society Policy Center.

The current round of attacks on J Street, then, are about what the attacks on J Street have always been about: The arrogant presumption of hawkish pro-Israel conservatives that there can be only one acceptable pro-Israel position in Washington, a rubber stamp for whatever the Israeli government wants at any given moment, regardless of the actual consequences for the Palestinians, for the region, or for U.S. interests.

 At bottom, the ferocity of the battles between various Washington-based organizations about Israel testifies to the extent that battles over Israel and the Middle East are reproduced in miniature in Washington, DC. They appear to be devoting more time and energy to combating each other than to addressing what is actually taking place in Israel. With neocons attacking J Street and progressive bloggers defending it, the brouhaha over the Soros/J Street tie provides a glimpse into the Spy v. Spy world that is developing in Washington between various organizations purporting to represent Israel's true interests.